THE CAPE POLICE—A GARRISON OF SIX MEN—MERRY-GO-ROUNDS AND NAPHTHA FLARES—A CLAMANT WANT OF FIFTY MEN—WHERE ARE THE TROOPS?—"IT'LL BE JUST THE SAME AS IT WAS IN '81."
Aliwal North, Oct. 15.
"Halt! Who goes there?" The trim figure, black in the moonlight, in breeches and putties, with a broad-brimmed hat looped up at the side, brought up his carbine and barred the entrance to the bridge. Twenty yards beyond a second trim black figure with a carbine stamped to and fro over the planking. They were of the Cape Police, and there were four more of them somewhere in reserve; across the bridge was the Orange Free State; behind us was the little frontier town of Aliwal North, and these were its sole garrison.
The river shone silver under its high banks. Beyond it, in the enemy's country, the veldt too was silvered over with moonlight and was blotted inkily with shadow from the kopjes. Three miles to the right, over a rise and down in a dip, they said there lay the Rouxville commando of 350 men. That night they were to receive 700 or 800 more from Smithfield, and thereon would ride through Aliwal on their way to eat up the British half-battalion at Stormberg. On our side of the bridge slouched a score of Boers—waiting, they said, to join and conduct their kinsmen. In the very middle of these twirled a battered merry-go-round—an island of garish naphtha light in the silver, a jarr of wheeze and squeak in the swishing of trees and river. Up the hill, through the town, in the bar of the ultra-English hotel, proceeded this dialogue.
A fat man (thunderously, nursing a Lee-Metford sporting rifle). Well, you've yourselves to blame. I've done my best. With fifty men I'd have held this place against a thousand Boers, and not ten men'd join.
A thin-faced man (piping). We haven't got the rifles. Every Dutchman's armed, and how many rifles will you find among the English?
Fat man (shooting home bolt of Lee-Metford). And who's fault's that? I've left my property in the Free State, and odds are I shall lose every penny I've got—what part? all over—and come here on to British soil, and what do I find? With fifty men I'd hold this place—
Thin-faced man. They'll be here to-night, old De Wet says, and they're to come here and sjambok the Englishmen who've been talking too much. That's what comes of being loyal!
Fat man. Loyal! With fifty men—
Brown-faced, grey-haired man (smoking deep-bowled pipe in corner). No, you wouldn't.
Fat man (playing with sights of Lee-Metford). What! Not keep the bridge with fifty men—
Brown-faced, grey-haired man. And they'd cross by the old drift, and be on every side of you in ten minutes.
Fat man (grounding Lee-Metford). Ah! Well—h'm!
Thick-set man. But we're safe enough. Has not the Government sent us a garrison? Six policemen! Six policemen, gentlemen, and the Boers are at Pieter's farrm, and they'll be here to-night and sjambok—
Thin-faced man. Where are the troops? Where are the volunteers? Where are the—
Brown-faced, grey-haired man. There are no troops, and the better for you. The strength of Aliwal is in its weakness. (To fat man.) Put that gun away.
Thin-faced man, thick-set man, and general chorus. Yes, put it away.
Thin-faced man. But I want to know why the Boers are armed and we aren't? Why does our Government—
Brown-faced man. Are you accustomed to shoot?
Thin-faced man (faintly). No.
Fat man (returning from putting away Lee-Metford). But where do you come from?
Brown-faced man. Free State, same as you do. Lived there five-and-twenty years.
Thin-faced man. Any trouble in getting away?
Brown-faced man. No. Field-cornet was a good old fellow and an old friend of mine, and he gave me the hint—
Thin-faced man. Not much like ours! Why, there's a lady staying here that's friendly with his daughters, and she went out to see them the other day, and the old man said they'd stop here and sjam—
Fat man. Gentlemen, drinks all round! Here's success to the British arms!
All. Success to the British arms!
Thick-set man. And may the British Government not desert us again!
Fat man. I'll take a shade of odds about it. They will. I've no trust in Chamberlain. It'll be just the same as it was in '81. A few reverses and you'll find they'll begin to talk about terms. I know them. Every loyal man in South Africa knows them. (General murmur of assent.)
Hotel-keeper. Gentlemen, drinks all round! Here's success to the British arms!
All. Success to the British arms!
Thick-set man. And where are the British arms? Where's the Army Corps? Has a man of that Army Corps left England? Shilly-shally, as usual. South Africa's no place for an Englishman to live in. Armoured train blown up, Mafeking cut off, Kimberley in danger, and General Butler—what? Oh yes—General Buller leaves England to-day. Why didna they send the Army Corps out three months ago?
Brown-faced man. It's six thousand miles—
Thick-set man. Why didna they send them just after the Bloemfontein conference, before the Boers were ready? British Gov—
Brown-faced man. They've had three rifles a man with ammunition since 1896.
I (timidly). Well, then, if the Army Corps had left three months ago, wouldn't the Boers have declared war three months ago too?
All except brown-faced man (loudly). No!
Brown-faced man (quietly). Yes. Gentlemen, bedtime! As Brand used to say, "Al zal rijt komen!"
All (fervently). Al zal rijt komen! Success to the British arms! Good night!
(All go to bed. In the night somebody on the Boer side—or elsewhere—goes out shooting, or looses off his rifle on general grounds; two loyalists and a refugee spring up and grasp their revolvers. In the morning everybody wakes up unsjamboked. The hotel-keeper takes me out to numerous points whence Pieter's farm can be reconnoitred: there is not a single tent to be seen, and no sign of a single Boer.)
It is a shame to smile at them. They are really very, very loyal, and they are excellent fellows and most desirable colonists. Aliwal is a nest of green on the yellow veldt, speckless, well-furnished, with Maréchal Niel roses growing over trellises, and a scheme to dam the Orange river for water-supply, and electric light. They were quite unprotected, and their position was certainly humiliating.